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Debbie Sterling builds new play patterns

Created by Debbie Sterling, an engineer, entrepreneur, and Rhode Island native, GoldieBlox is a doll/figurine set, a book series, and a board game with a tool set. “Little girls need to realize that construction play and engineering work can be fun,’’ Sterling says.

akub Mosur for The Boston Globe

Created by Debbie Sterling, an engineer, entrepreneur, and Rhode Island native, GoldieBlox is a doll/figurine set, a book series, and a board game with a tool set.

As Edith Cunningham browsed the toy aisles at a Target near her Norwood home recently, she shopped for rugged toys traditionally aimed at boys. But she was shopping with her almost 5-year-old daughter, Madelyn, in mind.

“Not every little girl is into the frilly, girly things,” Cunningham said. “Madelyn is one who is not. You could offer her those things, but in our house she ignores them and instead plays with her older brother’s toys and games, because they are more serious and more challenging to her.”

“Little girls need to realize that construction play and engineering work can be fun,’’ Sterling says.

Jakub Mosur for The Boston Globe

“Little girls need to realize that construction play and engineering work can be fun,’’ Sterling says.

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As they confront sweet and sparkly gifts for girls, many parents sigh with frustration. While toy makers market trading-card sets to little boys that help with math skills, and creatures that must be built with the help of diagrams and directions, girls are still plied with dolls they can dress, glittering crowns, and mini high heels.

Debbie Sterling understands their dissatisfaction. A 29-year-old engineer, entrepreneur, and Lincoln, R.I., native, Sterling has been heralded in retail and academic circles as the creator of GoldieBlox, an alternative to toys more concerned with looks than brains.

The GoldieBlox kit, which retails for $29.99 and is marketed to girls ages 5-9, is a doll/figurine set, an illustrated book series, and a board game with a tool set, of sorts. In the books, GoldieBlox, a little girl engineer, goes on adventures around her community with her friends, pets included. Along the way, they encounter challenges that can only be fixed by building some sort of contraption.

In the first book, the problem requires GoldieBlox and pals to build a spinning machine. Readers can follow Goldie’s instructions, and use the tools in the kit to make spinning machines of their own.

Sterling’s toys challenge girls to construct working machines that use a belt, crank, pulleys, wheels, and axels.

Jakub Mosur for The Boston Globe

Sterling’s toys challenge girls to construct working machines that use a belt, crank, pulleys, wheels, and axels.

Sterling came up with the idea — the name an obvious play on Goldilocks — a little over a year ago, while having breakfast with friends in San Francisco.

“It just occurred to me that there was a need,” she says. “Little girls need to realize that construction play and engineering work can be fun. Yes, there are pink LEGOS and other building-related toys and games that have a feminine angle, but little girls are character-driven in terms of how they learn.”

In September Sterling, a 2005 graduate of Stanford University with a degree in mechanical engineering and product design, sought $150,000 in start-up capital on Kickstarter.com. It took less than five days. Three weeks later, the pledges totaled $285,881.

One of the first toy and game pros to learn about GoldieBlox was Terry Lang­ston, Seattle-based creator of the board game Pictionary.

I really believe this is a great product that has huge potential, given the market for academic-themed girls’ items,” Lang­ston said.

Jim Silver, editor in chief of TimetoPlayMag.com, says while there’s a market for smart toys for girls, Sterling could have an uphill battle commercially.

“There’s a reason Barbie is the number one toy product out there in terms of sales over the years. Mattel has carefully crafted this theme of Barbie is a girl, and Barbie can do anything she puts her mind to — teach, [be a] veterinarian. . . .”

GoldieBlox also faces stiff competition in LEGO Friends and Mega Bloks, two toy products that feature girls in builder and engineer-like roles.

Amy Glasband, Sterling’s mother, says that both her daughters played with Barbies when they were younger, but they really found their footing in art-themed games.

“And that’s not a huge surprise,” Glasband said, “because Debbie’s grandmother was one of the first successful female cartoonists, worked for Disney, and later created Mr. Magoo. So this creative strand in Debbie makes sense to me. Her father has some artistic skill as well. And I knew she would be successful, but still, I didn’t see this coming. We didn’t even see her success in engineering coming till she was in college at Stanford.”

Sterling says she didn’t see engineering coming either, till her senior year of high school.

“I wanted to be in California and applied to Stanford,” she says. “My favorite teacher was a calculus teacher, and I asked her to write my recommendation letter. She asked if I had a major in mind, and I didn’t. She suggested engineering and said she believed I’d excel at it.”

At the end of her freshman year at Stanford, Sterling took an engineering class to see if it worked for her, and she loved it.

But graduation was followed by a couple of jobs at a design agency in Seattle and a jewelry manufacturer in California that called more heavily on Sterling’s creative talents.

A quarter-life crisis led her to quit the design job in 2008 and move to India, where she lived for seven months with Volunteer Service Overseas, the British version of the Peace Corps.

After moving back to the United States, Sterling continued her volunteer work, and got a job as marketing director at jewelry firm Lori Bonn. There, Sterling says, she learned more about bulk manufacturing. All those experience set the stage for GoldieBlox.

“It has been a whirlwind since then,” she says. “We’ve done great on the fund-raising. Five thousand kits are under development. We’ve already sold tons of pre-orders through our website [www.goldieblox.com], and the first orders will ship out in February. It will be an uphill battle to compete with established toy and game companies, but I think we can do it.”

Follow James Burnett on Twitter
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